Stephen Harper’s Conservatives care about Canadian history and believe that Canadian young people should know more about their history. That’s very positive.
What is much less positive is that they seem to believe that there is one correct version of Canadian history.
On April 29, Conservative MPs in the parliamentary committee on Canadian heritage put forward a plan for a “thorough and comprehensive review of significant aspects of Canadian history.” They plan to address various periods of our history, but focus particularly on the involvement of Canada in glorious past conflicts, including the First World War, with an emphasis on battles such as Vimy Ridge, and the Second World War, focusing on the battles where Canadians played an important and positive role, as well as the Korean War and more recent conflicts.
My parents grew up in apartheid-era South Africa. They learned all about their country in school. They learned that there were four million inhabitants of South Africa (non-whites didn’t count), and about glorious Dutch and British explorers and settlers. The history of racism and colonialism was not part of the curriculum.
Harper’s Conservatives want Canadian students to be proud of their country and its history. Who can argue against this noble goal? But if you only teach the parts of history that fit your vision, it ceases to be history and becomes propaganda.
Canada has much in its past to be proud of, although different Canadians would highlight different episodes. Most would agree that some chapters in our past are far from positive. Students also need to know about them. If they don’t know about the head tax on Chinese immigrants, the turning away of desperate Jewish immigrants in the 1930s, the internment of Japanese Canadians and the shameful history of residential schools, how will they become informed citizens who understand the importance of fair immigration policies and new partnerships with indigenous peoples?
Harper might say that I am revealing my own biases, but a multiplicity of views is part of the glory of history. Everyone approaches history with their own perspective, and interprets it from that perspective.
Professional historians work hard to interpret history as fairly and accurately as we can, but our own particular perspectives cannot help but colour our interpretations. Through debate, through listening to each other, we come closer to what might have been the truth. We try to avoid simply using history to further today’s agendas. That way is easy, and very dangerous.
We need to teach Canadian young people about Canada’s past. We also need to teach them the skills of historical interpretation. With careful guidance, they must learn to develop their own interpretations of Canadian history, if they are going to become the informed citizens Canada needs. These critical thinking skills are important at the elementary and secondary school level, and crucial for post-secondary students.
Harper’s Conservatives appear to be proposing to provide their vision of Canadian history to students at all levels.
History departments across the country offer students a range of courses. In my department, the course on the history of the Second World War is very popular. Undergraduates want to learn about this major conflict and about Canada’s role in the war. Many students also take courses on the history of race and ethnicity in Canada, Canadian women’s history, Canadian constitutional history and the history of indigenous peoples. They make choices about what courses to take, and so learn about the glorious and less glorious elements of this country’s past.
They also learn how historians take the raw material of history, ranging from interviews with participants, to newspapers, diaries and archival records, and use their skills and historical judgment to develop interpretations about the past, interpretations that are then often contested by other historians also seeking to understand our past.
Harper’s Conservatives don’t seem to particularly value the “raw material” of history, given the major cuts imposed on the federal archives. Perhaps it is because they feel they already know the real story of Canada’s past. Is this how Canadians want their history to be treated? Do they want a parliamentary committee dominated by Conservative ideology to determine the one correct narrative of Canadian history?
For the sake of Canada’s past, and Canada’s future, Canadians must not allow it.
Lynne Marks is a Canadian historian and chairwoman of the history department at the University of Victoria.